Aggressive tick-borne virus behind death in Maine is expected to become more common as the climate warms
Health officials in Maine reported the first death this year from an untreatable tick-borne illness, putting Americans on alert as warm-weather outdoor activities begin.
Robert J. Weymouth, a 58-year-old from Topsham, Maine, died due to complications from the Powassan virus, which caused serious neurological problems, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The disease is extremely rare with about 25 cases reported each year since 2015, but it is also untreatable and can lead to serious health problems, including infection of the brain, called encephalitis, or of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, as well. called meningitis. .
Many people who become infected with the virus don’t develop symptoms, but those who do typically notice them for up to a month after being bitten by an infected tick, which can include flu-like symptoms, seizures, brain swelling and, up to 15 percent of cases, dead.
Weymouth’s death marks the third Powassan death in Maine since 2015, and as winters get warmer and shorter, the world is becoming a more hospitable place for disease-carrying ticks.
Robert Weymouth died after about two weeks in hospital. His medical team discovered too late that the swelling in his brain was caused by the Powassan virus
The tick that is the main disperser of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the black-legged tick or deer tick as it occurs on deer
In the US, Powassan’s disease is mainly found in the northeastern states and the Great Lakes region
Officials in Maine are warning residents to be on the lookout for ticks when they go outside, especially in wooded, leafy and shrubby areas.
Deer ticks, which carry the Powassan virus thrive in temperatures above 45˚F and in areas with at least 85 percent humidity. Shorter winters are expected to extend the period when ticks are active each year, extending the time humans can be exposed to diseases such as Powassan and Lyme.
The Powassan virus typically kills about one in ten people who become infected, but the virus can be much more dangerous in seniors and those with weak immune systems.
The Powassan virus is rarely diagnosed — only a few dozen cases are discovered each year — because the majority of people who contract the virus are asymptomatic.
Annemarie Weymouth, Robert’s widow, told a local news outlet in Maine that her husband was immunocompromised and had rheumatoid arthritis. He initially did not go to the hospital due to Powassan symptoms.
Mr. Weymouth went to Maine Medical Center when he noticed swelling in his arm and a knee problem that required surgery. But then he lost all feeling on the right side of his body.
Shortly afterwards, an MRI scan revealed that Mr Weymouth had severe brain swelling, indicating the virus was in an advanced stage. An epidural confirmed the culprit was the tick-borne virus.
Because many people infected with the Powassan virus show no symptoms, doctors often can’t diagnose that as a possible diagnosis until they’ve run extensive blood or spinal fluid tests.
Mr Weymouth’s widow said she was frustrated with how little the doctors around her husband seemed to know about the disease. He was hospitalized for weeks before the medical team determined he had the virus.
By the time they determined that Mr. Weymouth tested positive for Powassan, it was too late.
His widow said, “Even if they had known it was Powassan from day one, there’s no known cure for that.”
She added, “I think if we knew this disease exists, we would have been more diligent. We do check for ticks, but then we would have used more spray and been extra careful.’
Maps showing the distribution of the Powassan virus in Northeast America
The tick that is the main disperser of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the black-legged tick or deer tick as it occurs on deer.
The tough black-legged tick lives in the eastern and northern Midwest of the US and southeastern Canada, and is also a carrier of Lyme disease.
The ticks are most common in wooded areas, of which Maine has many.
Currently, there are no vaccines or drugs for the disease, but treatment instead focuses on relieving symptoms, including difficulty breathing and brain swelling.
There are two types of Powassan virus: line 1 and line 2. Only line 2 is carried by the black-legged tick.
Cases generally emerge when ticks are most active in late spring, early summer, and mid-fall, primarily in the northeastern states and the Great Lakes region.